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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Teaching as Meaningful Work

In his terrific 2009 book on the complexity of success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identifies “meaningful work” as one necessary component of a fully successful life. Gladwell defines meaningful work as work that provides a person with autonomy, complexity and rewards that equal the effort put forth. Gladwell identifies teaching (and medicine and entrepreneurship) as meaningful work.

I went into teaching because, even as wide-eyed, idealistic, eighteen year-old entering college, I had a sense that teaching was meaningful work. In my years as a human resources director for a school district, I encountered literally dozens of adults who were in the midst of a career change from the business world into teaching because they were looking for more meaningful work. I believe the vast majority of us who are teachers chose teaching as a career because we wanted meaningful work.

And yet today as I talk to teachers and prospective teachers, I hear a great deal of frustration. Many are leaving the profession by either retiring early or seeking jobs out of the field. Prospective teachers I work with at Rider University are wondering aloud if they have made a good career choice. As Education Week has reported, enrollment in schools of education at colleges around the country is plummeting.

What’s going on? Clearly, nearly two decades of education reform policies, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top and from the Common Core to the Common Core aligned standardized tests, have taken their toll. I believe there is a general sense that teaching is somehow less “meaningful” than it once was. A look at Gladwell’s components of meaningful work might help us understand why.


For teachers autonomy means the ability to make critical curricular and instructional decisions based on our content knowledge, our professional judgement and our unique knowledge of the students in front of us. Education reform has undermined this autonomy unnecessarily through a regime of imposed standards, standardized tests and unreliable accountability measures. Standards in and of themselves don’t undermine autonomy. Most teachers feel the need for some guidance in what to teach and when and appreciate reasonable learning targets. But when standards are developed and imposed without their input and then tied to standardized tests and when schools and teachers and students are labeled as failing based on the results of those tests, teachers rightly feel their autonomy is being undermined.

When I started teaching, I had plenty of autonomy. Too much, in fact. I pretty much closed the door behind me and taught what I wanted the way I wanted. I wrote the curriculum; I chose the textbooks and I designed the assessments. As long as the children were not disruptive, as long as I wasn’t sending kids to the office, as long as my blinds were straight at the end of the day, all was ok with the school administration.

This level of autonomy is not what teachers want. The job is too complex to be successfully navigated in isolation. What teachers want, and need, is a level of autonomy that respects their professional judgement and allows them to design instruction for the particular needs of their students. To the extent that education reform has undermined this, the profession is endangered and more and more teachers will leave and fewer and fewer will enter.


Teaching children has always been an intellectually complex activity. It takes time and effort and ongoing personal reflection and professional development to master the craft. I have been teaching for 47 years and I am still learning new strategies for reaching students. Gladwell says it takes, on average, about 10,000 hours of concerted practice to master really complex work. Research suggests it takes teachers at least 3-4 years under the best possible scenarios to master the craft. As with all intellectually complex activities, there are no naturals. Both talent and hard work are required.

Education reform seeks to deny this complexity and reduce teaching and learning to a simplistic construct based on tests and punishments. Teaching is defined as preparing children to perform on tests and to comply with rigid behavior demands (so they learn to be compliant employees). Children in KIPP and Success Academy schools are expected to keep their noses to the grindstone, their eyes on the teacher and their ideas to themselves, and teachers are expected to enforce these draconian policies.

As Henry Giroux has put it, the educational reformers are focused on the “commodification of knowledge.” Education is no longer a social right, but a vehicle to support the immediate needs of the economy. With such a view teachers are reduced to the level of technician, a delivery system for information and a conduit for data collection.

As award winning New York teacher Matthew Rozell asked on his blog, “Am I a teacher or a technician?” Safe to say that Mr. Rozell and thousands of other teachers did not go in to teaching to be a technician. Safe to say that a failure by politicians and reformers to recognize, embrace and cultivate the complexity of the human endeavor of teaching and learning will mean more teachers leaving the profession and fewer entering.

Direct connection between effort and reward

In the free market the reward for hard work is defined in monetary terms. Work hard and you’ll make lots of money. Education reformers seeking to define education in market terms, think that teachers should be rewarded similarly, so we hear about merit pay schemes to reward teachers for achieving higher student test scores. This is a gross misreading of teacher motivation. Sure every teacher would like to make a decent living wage, but beyond that teachers seek very different kinds of rewards. Rewards that for the most part cannot be commodified.

The teacher’s reward comes from seeing students grasp a new concept. From finding the key to helping a recalcitrant student become motivated to learn. From reading a student essay that is well-crafted and well-argued. From having a student rush up to you breathless to tell you about a good book she has been reading.  From having a student come back years later to say thanks for some kindness you showed that you cannot even remember.

In a test and punish world, these rewards become harder to find. If you have little voice in what and how you are teaching, you will not feel rewarded for student success. The relationship among teacher and student and content and attitude towards learning can be richly rewarding, but not when that relationship is reduced to a number on a test and to instruction based on those tests. Teaching is too nuanced to yield to a reductionist view of its value.

A successful teacher is a teacher who does hard and meaningful work every day. By making that work less autonomous, less complex and less personally rewarding, education reformers are driving good teachers away from the profession and guaranteeing that it will be harder to find committed young people to fill the teaching positions of the future.

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